Assistant Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel says he has seen positive changes in the department as a result of the settlement agreement between the city and
Department of Justice, but he still questions the federal findings that Seattle police engaged in a pattern of excessive force.
“Some feel the settlement contract went too far; some said it didn’t go far enough,” Pugel said Wednesday, two days after he was named interim chief upon Chief John Diaz’s retirement in 30 to 45 days. “ … We all agree, though, that we are where we are. A federal judge has spoken.”
Last month, a federal judge approved a first-year plan to overhaul the Seattle department, after the Department of Justice (DOJ) found in December 2011 that 20 percent of police use-of-force incidents were excessive and that officers had displayed evidence of biased policing.
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Pugel said he met Tuesday with Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed independent monitor who is overseeing the agreement, and members of Bobb’s team. Pugel characterized the meeting as “very refreshing.”
“Yes, there was a lot of turmoil … John was at the tip of the sword without a road map, with a lot of competing interests,” Pugel said of Diaz, who sometimes angrily disputed the DOJ’s findings and was involved in the often tense negotiations that led to last summer’s settlement agreement.
“It’s past … ”
“That’s all done. It’s past … We’re all moving forward,” he said.
At the same time, Pugel said, a team of experts is analyzing past use-of-force incidents to determine if, as the DOJ asserted, 20 percent of those incidents were unconstitutional or illegal.
“We have some university professors looking at that, using a scientific and academic approach, to see if we really were at 20 percent,” he said. Pugel noted that no Seattle officer was ever federally charged with violating someone’s constitutional rights.
“That’s what John had to deal with. We got hit with the (DOJ) report and it frankly surprised us,” said Pugel.
Nonetheless, Pugel — who for the past four months has helped create a force investigative team and also led the newly formed Force Review Board — said “huge” changes are already taking place, especially in the investigative stage, as part of police reforms that came about as a result of the DOJ’s scrutiny.
He said the fact that use-of-force incidents weren’t previously being well-documented “really hurt us.”
“We’re still going through the motions, but the motions are more thorough and analytical,” he said. More photos are being taken, statements recorded and officers are making a “diligent search” for video footage, whether it comes from a business’ surveillance camera or a citizen’s cellphone, Pugel said. He also said the department has increased staffing in its professional standards and training sections.
One of nine children, Pugel grew up in Seattle and graduating from O’Dea High School and the University of Washington.
Pugel, 53, started with the Seattle Police Department as a volunteer reserve police officer in 1981 and was hired as a full-time officer in January 1983. He rose steadily through the ranks, being promoted to sergeant in 1990 and captain of the West Precinct nine years later.
Pugel oversaw the investigation into the Oct. 31, 2009, slaying of Officer Timothy Brenton and the subsequent arrest of a suspect, Christopher Monfort.
The father of three adult children, two daughters and a son, Pugel said his grandfather was a former editor and publisher of The Tri-City Herald newspaper.
His younger brother, Michael Pugel, is a sergeant and diver with the Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol unit.
Pugel was one of 11 semifinalists for the job of police chief after Gil Kerlikowske stepped down in 2009 to become the nation’s drug czar. Diaz, who first served as interim chief, was ultimately chosen for the post and led the department for less than four years.
During Wednesday’s interview, Pugel said Diaz could have opted to leave when he announced his retirement on Monday but instead is helping Pugel transition into his new assignment. Though Pugel is a longtime member of the department’s command staff, he said, he plans to spend as much time as possible learning the nuances of the job from Diaz.
He credited Diaz’s leadership for a 10 percent drop in the city’s crime rate, while the force also increased the clearance rate for crimes like residential burglary.
Though Pugel was picked as interim chief over deputy chiefs Nick Metz and Clark Kimerer, Pugel said he hadn’t felt any tension with them, noting that he and Kimerer were patrol partners for three years in Rainier Valley early in their careers.
“One person cannot take care of this department,” said Pugel, adding that the entire command staff is “extremely loyal to the mission, extremely loyal to the city.”
Pugel said he doesn’t know if he will seek the police chief’s job permanently. He expects the search process to take at least a year. It is unclear who will take over Pugel’s role as commander of criminal investigations.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org